Wednesday, July 01, 2009

When Poets Face Disaster: Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, SLAMMING OPEN THE DOOR (Alice James Books, 2009)

Long before we become skilled poets (if we do), most of us write love poems. We learn them by heart, write them down, then create our own -- my mother taught me "Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and I love you" before I could read, and she penned it at the front of an autograph book that she gave me to use. Sadly, the era of autograph books had already passed, and I don't think anyone other than relatives ever wrote in the book for me. I lost it when my house burned.

Loss and love are so often linked that love songs are just as often songs of yearning for someone who's vanished from our lives. Love poetry straddles the same duality. Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" asserts that the poet will master the loss of the beloved, although it is, for the moment at least, "disaster."

But what is the poetry of unmasterable disasters?

SLAMMING OPEN THE DOOR, by lifelong poet and long-time creative writing teacher (and contributing editor to The American Poetry Review) Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, is already one of the "hits" of the poetry list for this year. Framed more or less around the process of discovering her daughter's murder, enduring the funeral, investigation, and court proceedings, and discovering mysterious reminders of her daughter's life, the book seizes hearts and minds. The poem from which the volume title is drawn is one of only a few in the collection that embrace abstraction, opening with:

In his Russian greatcoat,
slamming open the door
with an unpardonable bang,
and he has been here ever since.

The personification deftly snares the evil of this kind of death, for in the final stanza:
...he stands behind me
clamping two colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck:
From now on,
you write about me

This poem has already spread, in its entirety, over many web sites and blogs; it is offered by as a "poem for tragedy and grief" and will enter anthologies, no doubt. But the force of it is not alone in the collection. "Homicide Detective" provides an example of how someone who already understands the unending horror of murder can speak to what a family member actually needs. "Ant," a tiny eight-line poem in two stanzas, plays from Bonanno's daughter's nickname, LadyBug (Guatemalan by heritage, the daughter was Leidy, pronounced "lady"): It provides another insect, one with "rosary-bead parts," and points to what cannot be seen in an afterlife. Then again, life after a child's murder is always and only "afterlife," life defined by existing after a horrendous trauma, an unpardonable disaster.

What strikes me especially in this collection -- I hope you will read it, so I'm not going to quote the poems at length; you want to discover them in sequence, I promise -- is that these are not my mother's poems. They are the work of an accomplished poet who has not "mined the past for something to write about" but rather meets the present with the tools of a skilled wordsmith.

A parallel can be found in Brian Turner's HERE, BULLET (also from Alice James Books). Turner earned his MFA in writing, then enlisted and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. He did more than survive, more than witness the deaths of friends and comrades and children and enemies. He led men into, and often through, the Valley of the Shadow of Death. (Doing this, he felt, demanded that he hide his poem-writing from his men, lest they assume he was lacking in the masculine force needed to direct their battles and survival.) The cleanly pruned and intense poems of Turner's collection are evidence of how valuable is it to be a poet first -- before coping with disaster.

Bonanno's collection shows the same.

[For a well-written local exploration of Bonanno's life, before and after, please do look at]

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